Candidates err to think they're in touch on crime

September 01, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Monday, during the televised debate between seven candidates for governor, Republican Helen Delich Bentley glared into a television camera with a predatory glint in her eye and intoned, "As governor, I have a message to violent criminals: I will catch you, I will incarcerate you, and if need be, I will have you put to death."

She had been asked, "What will be your strategies to prevent and control crime and how will we pay for them?"

Growled Mrs. Bentley: "Just today, the Baltimore Sun described my [anti-crime] plan as the toughest. . . . Prisons should be a place for punishment rather than provide luxuries that are better than many neighborhoods where the average person lives."

The Maryland congresswoman spoke so harshly that some people in the audience reportedly gasped out loud. Others squirmed uncomfortably in their seats. Small wonder. Does Mrs. Bentley truly believe our prisons are more luxurious than the average Marylander's home? Such ignorance is frightening enough in a member of the U.S. Congress. It would be terrifying in a governor.

But Mrs. Bentley's attitude wasn't all that different from that of her opponents. Most promised to enforce the death penalty, build more prisons, push for tougher mandatory sentences. And, as though chanting a mantra, each candidate promised to "get tough" on crime.

Said Democrat Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County: "I believe in being as tough on criminals as they are on us."

Obviously, the candidates think they are responding to the will of the people. What's scary, though, is that they probably are misreading what people really want.

A few years ago, the Johns Hopkins University released a mammoth study of Maryland's prison overcrowding problem in which it documented this error. The state's elected officials and members of the law enforcement community were asked to name the ideal policy for the state's correctional system. Most officials, under cover of anonymity, chose rehabilitation. But those same officials admitted in the study that public pressure had forced the state to sacrifice rehabilitation efforts in favor of punishment and incarceration.

But the Hopkins researchers took their study one step further -- they surveyed the public. And most people said Maryland ought to be trying to rehabilitate prisoners rather than warehouse them.

Wrote the researchers, "The picture presented thus far suggests that not only are our policy-makers poor judges of the public's wants, but since their own private views are relatively similar to those of the public, the system is also not seen as meeting the goals of the policy-makers themselves."

I suspect Maryland hasn't changed that much since the early 1980s, when the Hopkins report was published.

And when you think about it, rehabilitation and crime prevention in general makes sense both intuitively and intellectually. I have specialized in criminal justice issues throughout my career. And it seems clear to me, after speaking with scores of crime victims and their families, that even the harshest punishment is a poor substitute for the loss of a loved one. Doesn't it follow then that the state has an absolute responsibility to do everything in its power to prevent a crime from occurring?

Most of the candidates in the debate -- with the exception of Mrs. Bentley -- at least paid lip service to this concept: Republican William S. Shepard, for instance, said we need to find alternatives to incarceration and more imaginative methods of parole. Mrs. Boergers said we need a comprehensive program that eliminates "the breeding grounds for violent crime." Democrat Parris N. Glendening spoke of creating jobs in poor communities. Democrats Melvin A. Steinberg and American Joe Miedusiewski mentioned the need for mandatory treatment programs for drug offenders.

But in every case, treatment and rehabilitation were only afterthoughts. The candidates' main message was that each was prepared to be tougher than the opponents.

Mrs. Bentley may stand on the outermost fringe. But her opponents seem prepared to pursue policies that are just as lunatic, misguided and pathetically out of touch.

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